As the Bestsellers of 2012 Lists have been trickling out, it’s been interesting to see the differences between the physical book lists (Nielsen, Amazon) and the lists of top-selling e-books (Kindle, Apple). While some titles like E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy sit atop most lists, irrespective of format, some titles that broke the print lists were absent from the e-book lists, and vice versa. For example, Nora Roberts’ The Last Boyfriend and J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy are on Nielsen’s top 10 print list, but are no-shows on the lists that pull best e-book sales only. Similarly, David Baldacci’s The Innocent isn’t on the print list, but it’s a bestselling title on Apple’s and Amazon’s lists.
An interesting post on the LA Times’ blog “Jacket Copy” poses an interesting explanation. The paper’s Book Critic David L. Ulin reminisces, “In the interest of keeping it light [on my honeymoon], my wife and I traveled with cheap paperbacks, which we left behind when we were done. This has always been the role of mass-market publishing, and it’s one e-books seem particularly suited to fulfill.”
Ulin points to an observation in a recent Wall Street Journal piece by Nicholas Carr that notes “e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales. Digital best-seller lists are dominated in particular by genre novels, like thrillers and romances. Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.”
Ulin concludes by agreeing with Carr’s assertion that e-books “may turn out to be…an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback.”
I’m not fully sold, considering the year’s top print sellers were mostly genre fiction/mass market titles. Plus, Doubleday is releasing James’ Fifty Shades trilogy in hardcover at the end of this month. I guess we’ll see soon enough whether James’ hardbacks fly off the shelves with the same velocity as her books did in trade paperback form.
I think preferred reading format comes down to habit, convenience, and cost. Older people will read physical books in greater volume because it’s what they’re (we’re) used to, while younger people will be more apt to consume their content on digital devices. In the balance, booklovers who can afford an e-reader and/or want to be able to cart around more than one book without straining their shoulder straps will skew toward e-books.
I also believe the reverence people attach to a hardcover book is shifting in the advent of e-reading — as is the idea of a paperback as a disposable read. Quick beach read or not, there’s nothing disposable about an e-reader. Perhaps that will change as e-readers get cheaper and lighter.
In any event, James’ hardcover sales could be a good barometer for readers’ behavior/preferences with respect to format — and for the distribution cycle of books. Perhaps, like James’ Fifty Shades‘ trajectory, books will start off as e-books, then enjoy a re-release in paperback, with the final destination being hardcover.